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Spiritual Abuse and The Power of Silence

Since I started writing about spiritual abuse two years ago, I’ve been asked more than once to stop. I’ve been encouraged to stop talking about spiritual abuse because it causes questions and conversations that people are uncomfortable. I’ve been encouraged “to think about the people this impacts” and “to think how people will respond,” but the gnawing understanding that sweeping things under the rug and allowing these instances of spiritual abuse be handled internally only perpetuates rather than eradicates the occurrence of spiritual abuse in communities of faith is something I have to write and talk about.

Each time I’ve encountered this pushback, I am reminded of the times I was told to doubt my instincts, to question my gut, to keep silent as a child and teen. It happens in subtle ways as Michelle Obama points out in her recent address to a marketing and sales event called Inbound:

If you have been socialized to think your voice doesn’t matter…there’s so much going on that shushes us and it’s hard to overcome when you need to defend yourself because it’s hard to drum that stuff up…and keeps us from fighting the fights we need to fight for ourselves and for our children.

We have to overcome the socialization that has taught us not to talk about those things that we see and experience like spiritual abuse that people don’t want us to acknowledge, wrestle with, and ultimately overcome. We have to be open to hear people’s stories of being abused and molested in our communities of faith in years past and in the present if we have any hope of making it stop in the future, but the vast number of people who have shared their stories with me after sharing them with leadership in these communities of faith have been encouraged to do one thing:

Be silent.

Keep this quiet so that we can protect the community. Don’t talk about this because his reputation is on the line or the church’s reputation is on the line. Don’t share what you’ve experienced with anyone or we will take legal action. Again and again the recurring message: We don’t talk about this.

I do. This is spiritual abuse.

I hear you saying, stop talking about it and focus on the good things in communities of faith, but that’s what we always do. We always look for the good overlooking the systematic, entrenched culture of spiritual abuse in our communities of faith that causes a lifetime of trauma in children and teens and adults. Until I stop hearing story after story of spiritual abuse, I can’t stop talking and writing and asking questions trying to restore hope for those who have survived spiritual abuse.

Hope in a God who doesn’t use silence and oppression as tools for submission, but invites us to join in the work of healing and wholeness here on earth.

 

 

Spiritual Abuse and Failure to Follow Up

Last week I wrote about another story of spiritual abuse. This story involved the woman being told to keep quiet and to let the men handle things. It’s not an uncommon story. I know it’s happened to many people who have experienced spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse, but this isn’t the only thing that happens to victims of spiritual abuse, sexual abuse, and physical abuse.

In many cases, victims are strong and resilience. They don’t listen to the people telling them to keep things quiet and to not report what has happened to them. In many cases, these courageous and brave victims report their experiences. They share the abuse they have been through even though it’s painful and traumatic to recount. They overcome their fears and their shame in order to make it better for someone else.

Even though they show incredible courage and bravery, these victims are often met with people who fail to follow up. Over the past couple of weeks, the tech industry has been reeling from story after story of  women entrepreneurs who have sought advice and investment from men. The story for these women was that they had to endure sexual harassment, groping, and unwanted sexual advances in the midst of trying to grow their businesses and procure funding to make their ideas become reality. When they reported these investor’s and advisor’s behavior to their businesses or firms more often than not, the business didn’t take their accusations seriously or follow up at all. Years of reporting, bravery, and courage on the part of these victims has finally brought to light the engrained sexism and privilege that exists in the tech industry.

But it’s not just the tech industry.

Women who are in fundamentalist and conservative communities of faith often are counseled and encouraged to stay in abusive marriages in order to protect the sanctity of marriage and avoid divorce. Women who are beaten, raped, and told they are worthless again and again are told to remain with their abusers because it is “God’s will.” This is spiritual abuse. There is never, never a reason to tell a victim of abuse to stay in an abusive relationship. There is never, never a reason to blame God for the abuse a woman is experiencing. It is not an exaggeration to say this is a matter of life and death:

 More than half of female homicide victims were killed in connection to intimate partner violence — and in 10 percent of those cases, violence shortly before the killing might have provided an opportunity for intervention.

It would be easier if we just continued on our way without worrying about these deep issues and how deeply engrained sexism, sexual harassment, and spiritual abuse are in our churches, in our business, and in our country. It would be easier, but it would be failing to follow up and we’ve had enough of that, haven’t we?

On the Road Again

I glanced at the notification that popped up on Waze. “Congratulations! You’ve driven 500 miles this week.” 500 miles? I thought to myself. That can’t be right, can it? I thought back to Saturday where I drove to Asheville and back to Columbia with two tired girls who had just rocked a swim meet. I thought about Monday where I had the honor to lead Bon Air Baptist in The Privilege Walk and a Bible Study related to their work with Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church in the Myrtle Beach area. Then I thought about the annual worship gathering for Baptist Women in Ministry in Atlanta.

What a week.

It was the kind of week that has left me road weary. Although it was refreshing and inspiring to lead the privilege walk with this group of youth, I know there so many who don’t want to engage or examine their privilege much less use their power and privilege to help others. Although it was refreshing and inspiring to gather with Baptist Women from around the country, there are still only 6.5% women who hold senior pastor or co-pastor positions in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

There’s still so much work to do and so few people who are willing to do the hard work of breaking down privilege and breaking down gender stereotypes. There are even fewer people who are willing to acknowledge their privilege (rather than defend their privilege) and use their voice to dismantle institutional sexism.

Even though I’m road weary, I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for the women who have survived sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace and have been in tears this week because of the blatant reminder that America is still a culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault. I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for those in socioeconomic situations whose voices are ignored and whose healthcare needs are decided by power and privilege. I’ll keep driving, keep teaching, keep worshipping, and keep writing for those two tired girls and their younger brother to have a healthier, more whole way of living and being themselves.

“Where does your husband pastor?”

Today as I was dropping off our son at his half-day school, I was introduced to a woman who was visiting. The woman who introduced me said, “And this is one of our moms who is also an excellent baptist minister.”

I smiled, keeping an eye out for Ben as he explored the lobby.

The woman who introduced me to the visitor went on her way leaving the two of us to continue the conversation.

“Where does your husband pastor?” the visitor asked me.

“I’m the pastor, actually,” I responded with a smile.

“Oh, wow….that’s great,” she responded, obviously taken aback by my clarification.

It was interesting to me that even though the woman who introduced us was clear that I was both mom and pastor, for this visitor, those two things didn’t go together or fit into her schema. I didn’t take offense because I know she was taking a lot in as she was looking around, but also because, to be honest, meeting a female baptist minister still isn’t that common, especially in the heart of the Bible Belt.

Maybe, as she continues on her way, she’ll pass along the word that she met a female baptist pastor. Maybe the next female baptist minister she meets won’t get the question, “Where does your husband pastor?” Maybe when her daughter or granddaughter or one of their friends explains to her that they are called to ministry, she won’t be shocked or surprised because she’s met a female baptist minister before.

And maybe the next time I see her and we’re able to have a longer conversation, I’ll share that my husband is an ordained baptist minister as well, just to keep her on her toes!

Making Room at the Table

It’s been four years since I stepped into the identity of pastor for the first time. I’ve become accustomed to the people I meet in the Bible Belt who are shocked to find out there is such a thing as a Baptist woman pastor. I’ve become accustomed to the conversations and debates about what fully including women at the table means for the future of the church and the future of the Baptist identity. I’ve become accustomed to the resistance, shaming, and spiritual abuse that come from those who are scared of losing their power and control over the new seating arrangements at the table.

Sheryl Sandberg has become renown for encouraging women who want to become leaders and decision makers in the business world to “lean in” and take a seat at the table rather than hovering in the background of conversations and meetings. Taking a place at the table shows confidence, competence, and courage all important aspects of leadership.

But what she doesn’t cite is the fallout that follows once women take a seat at the table. Inevitably, when women start to take more seats at the table, there is less room people who have traditionally occupied those seats. As women begin to step confidently into their calls as ministers, as pastors, as leaders, as decision-makers, those who have been in power will feel challenged and threatened. There will be disruption and confusion because the table isn’t set as it always has been. No one is sure of their place or their power anymore.

This is what we need. We need disruption. We need to turn the tables. We need a different table setting. We need tables full of as many voices and perspectives as we can find. We need to bring out the table leaves and add more room and more seats. We need to sit beside each other sharing fellowship and needs. We need to bump elbows sitting beside each other sharing space, sharing food, and sharing ideas instead of fighting over seats like children in a game of musical chairs.

There is room enough for you. There is room enough for me. There is room enough for all.

Uncovering Spiritual Abuse: The Power of Story

Today has been filled with community and fellowship and celebration as part of CBF SC 25th Anniversary General Assembly. I couldn’t help but be a bit overcome and overwhelmed by the stories of those who gathered together to help form BWIM SC and CBF SC.

Because it’s this power of story that helped me to uncover the spiritual abuse I experienced. It was meeting and hearing that there were baptists who gathered together and worshipped with women who preached and led worship and chaired committees that slowly opened my eyes to another whole world of possibility.

If there were communities of faith and baptist state and regional groups who gathered together and welcomed and affirmed women in ministry, then maybe this calling that had been wrestling within me trying to find its voice wasn’t something I had to keep telling to be quiet. Maybe I just needed to find a fellowship who worked in cooperation with us each other, who built each other up, challenged each other, and communed together.

And maybe the more we tell our stories, the more people we can help recover from spiritual abuse. Maybe the power of story is just like the power of the spoken word that brings light into the darkness and life from the depths.

On Writing and Speaking about Spiritual Abuse: Why Me?

I can remember the summer when a group of youth led a worship service at a small church and were told only the guys could be the ones who preached during the Sunday morning service. The reasoning was that the churches where we were going wouldn’t or didn’t support women preachers. I thought this might very well be true as a woman who preached was much different theological from a woman who led Bible study for kids, but still there was this question lodged within me, Did the church where we were going not support women as preachers or did the church who was sending us not support women as preachers? 

And as I wrestled with this question, I wondered as I often did, Why me? Why did it seem that these questions always came to my mind sinking deeply into my heart and soul causing me to wonder about whether all churches believe women couldn’t be preachers? Why was there just an inkling of doubt about the teaching and preaching I heard about the role of women? Why was there something within me that bucked the idea that my purpose in life was to make sure I didn’t get pregnant until I was married and then get pregnant without complications? Why me?

More than once I voiced my concerns to adults and was told, “Why do you feel like you need more? Why do you feel like you need to speak?” I answered honestly then as I do today, “I don’t know, except I feel called to preach and teach and ask questions.”

The doubt and fear that was instilled into me when I voiced these questions about the inequality that existed was spiritual abuse. It was a way to silence opposition and coerce obedience to a certain set of expectations. Obedience to this set of expectations maintained and kept power in the hands of the powerful decision makers. 

And I just wonder if perhaps I’m not the only one who found herself in the midst of communities of faith where something felt off, not quite right. I wonder if there were others, are others like me who are beginning to feel the unsettled realization that there is more to know and who indeed want to seek and find Truth.

Questions lead to a journey of discovery not only of who God truly is, but who you really are. As you find yourself in the midst of this journey, I hope what you will find is what I have found, my true self, the way my individual light and life can make a difference to those who are hurting. What I hope you find is the strength of a community of other people who have asked tough questions and have found Truth. When you do find your true self, the Divine, and Truth, peace and wholeness will envelope you in the light of love for yourself and others.

 

Am I Doing this Right?

As I was burning the dead plants from our garden in preparation for our Ash Wednesday services, I was overwhelmed with uncertainty. Am I doing this right? While we practiced baptism, leading communion, and discussed funerals and marriage ceremonies, we never burned ashes. Perhaps it’s because the celebration of Ash Wednesday isn’t all that common in baptist churches or perhaps it’s because there is ample opportunity to buy ashes already burned and ready for imposition. Perhaps it’s because part as communities of faith, we often assume that the way we’ve always done things will hold up.

As I watched the dead plants become ash while trying to keep our 16 month old a safe distance from the flame, I remembered the first time I had seen someone bearing the mark of the cross on an Ash Wednesday. It was my best friend who I knew attended the Catholic church across the street from my Southern Baptist Church and when she arrived to school, I tried to clean her forehead hoping to save her from embarrassment of having dirt on her head, which is what best friends do in middle school.

She stopped my hand as I tried and said, “It’s a cross. I went to mass this morning because it’s Ash Wednesday.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was embarrassed to wear my cross earrings to middle school and often hid my WWJD bracelet under my long sleeves, but here she was bearing the mark of the cross on her forehead for all to see. Her profession of faith and confession that she was dust and to dust she would return didn’t match my understanding of Catholics as “the others” and “nonbelievers.”

19 years later, as a I prepared the ashes for our own Baptist Ash Wednesday service, I was overwhelmed with the question: Am I doing this right? Am I including all? Am I welcoming all? Am I remembering that we are all the people of God overcome with our own dustiness at times and wanting only to find the divine breath that made us come to life? As a minister, am I challenging our human tendency to group ourselves into us and them, believer and nonbeliever, faithful and unfaithful? Am I questioning the times that we turn a finger to blame someone else for handing us the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil unwilling to admit that we did indeed take a bite?

And as the tomato stalks that had yielded fruit only to be eaten by bugs and plagued by blight turned to ash, so too did my question. Maybe it isn’t whether I am burning ashes “right” or ministering “right,” but rather that I am a witness to the miraculous power of creation to die and rise again. I am a witness that out of dust can come to life because the Divine walks among us.

Wrinkled Joy

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We finally got our Christmas decorations up this weekend. We were waiting until we had our girls again and I wasn’t quite ready to move from the season of gratitude into a season of waiting and searching in our home. Couldn’t I teach our kids more about thanksgiving lasting all year if we just left up those decorations?

But as I watched them walk around the tree light debating over which tree would be easiest to pick back up if their younger brother decided to try to pull up on it, I knew we needed this season. And so we climbed the garage to get down the boxes marked Christmas and there at the bottom of the ornament was joy wrinkled and waiting.

Wrinkled joy.

The joy of the birth of the Christ Child wrinkled with the realities of a year of uncertainity and grief in so many ways. Joy that has been packed away, waiting to be brought out for this season of Advent. Joy that just needs to be shaken and ironed out.

Or maybe, this is joy wrinkled by the truth of a messiah born in a manger surrounded by outcasts. Maybe this wrinkled joy is exactly what we have been awaiting.

On Finding Sure Footing Again

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Just yesterday, I wrote to our BWIM SC newsletter list how the election results had left me off balance and unsure of what we could do, what we should do. I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t ever been here before and although I had a pulse on the influence of our president elect in more conservative congregations and communities, I still didn’t think his voice would be enough to drown out all the other voices who had come together.

And I’ve been in a state in which hands have been offered and I have stood up, but much like Ben when I’ve tried to get him to walk holding my hands, I’ve sat back down pursed out my lip and pouted. I wasn’t ready to walk yet. I wanted to be carried.

Then today, I saw the pure joy in Ben’s face as he took three unprompted steps from the coffee table to the chair, something we have been seeing off and on over the Thanksgiving break, but this time it was different. He was doing it on his own. He was stepping out. I guess it’s time for me to do the same; to admit that even in the midst of uncertainty, still I am called to write, to study, and to preach.

I have no doubt the road ahead for Ben will be filled with bumps and bruises as he gets his sea legs. I know the same will be true for me, but I hope like him I will step joyfully and courageously into this next phase and stage of ministry and motherhood as we walk together.